World No.1 Dustin Johnson, of the USA.
World No.1 Dustin Johnson, of the USA. Eric Gay

US Masters 2017: who can win the green jacket?

LIKE bargain hunters jostling at the January sales, golf's best all know there's a Masters green jacket to fit them if they can elbow their rivals aside.

It's an interesting year. With Tiger wounded, Bubba Watson in the putting horrors, Phil Mickelson 47 this year and Danny Willett not looking in defending form, there is only one Masters champion in the FedEx Cup top 10.

At the head of that list is Dustin Johnson, who many Masters fans will have chosen as their winner.

DJ is finally the PGA Tour's alpha dog, but when the more refined Masters pack passes through the shade of Augusta's magnolia lined driveway, a different world awaits.

This time DJ is also different. The past year has been a massive change-up, to a point where he has what he needs to win a Masters.

Johnson had the wildest of rides to a tie for fourth last year - nine bogies and three doubles over the week - the last one on the 17th on Sunday. He finished only four shots off the winner, but there was a deal of chaos along the way.

Likewise he had a high finish in 2015, closing with a 69 for a tie for sixth in the year that he came back from a six-month break.

The difference now, of course, is that DJ is a major winner, and the tear that yielded the US Open and an astonishing run to the end of last season indicates he's a notch up from the player he's been over his first seven Masters.

A glance over his winning scorecards this year reflects DJ's commitment to his short game.

 

Jordan Spieth on the driving range at Augusta.
Jordan Spieth on the driving range at Augusta. Matt Slocum

Jordan Spieth will be asked a lot about his Amen Implosion of 2016, but it was hardly the tragic story of some never-to-be-seen-again journeyman blowing his bid for immortality. Spieth already had that notion in the bag before he blew last year's lead.

His driving accuracy hasn't quite been what it should be, but his year has not been that different to 2016 - a win and some top-fives. Last week Spieth played with the Patriots' Tom Brady at Augusta. Bet you my green jacket against your big fat ring. You have plenty to spare.

Either side of his wire-to-wire 2015 win, Spieth has two ties for second, and that's it. Care to back against him?

So we have Spieth and DJ all tied up coming down the stretch on Masters Sunday. Filling the next few places is not so easy given the plummeting age of Tour winners this season, and the game's overall changing of the guard.

Hideki Matsuyama has just turned 25, and despite trashing the front nine at Augusta on the final day last year, he tied for seventh. Hideki's defence this year of his Phoenix Open title in a playoff over Webb Simpson made him Japan's winningest ever player on the PGA Tour.

One competitive visit to Augusta has made it Justin Thomas's favourite course. This guy even looks a bit like Jordan Spieth, and at 23 he has had an astonishing season - three wins and five top 10s.

In his first Masters last year Thomas finished 10-over, so we could probably bank on a big improvement.

Big Spaniard Jon Rahm is even younger, and his homeward 30 with a birdie-eagle finish at Torrey Pines was stunning, if unsurprising for those who've followed his collegiate career.

There he was trashing his front nine in the final of the WGC Match Play, yet from five holes down Rahm clawed his way back to push DJ to the final green. Rahm is a first-timer though, and they mostly don't win at Augusta.

Rory McIlroy started the year with a rib injury and didn't play a Tour event until early March. He threw in a 77 last year, as he did in 2014. Rory still has legions of fans who think he will win at Augusta, and has enough time to do it.

 

Marc Leishman, of Australia, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida in March.
Marc Leishman, of Australia, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida in March. Phelan M. Ebenhack

When talking about straight form as opposed to patriotism it wouldn't be fair to leave Marc Leishman unmentioned for too long, and it's hard not to agree with those who can't resist his juicy odds.

He was putting in a bathtub at Bay Hill, and this is a bloke who has led both the Masters and The Open. Last year wasn't a great one for Leishman but his second Tour victory could be the ingredient he needs to break through in a major. Doubtful it could happen to a nicer bloke.

In 2015 Leishman withdrew from the Masters because his wife Audrey was gravely ill. Now Jason Day is in a wrenchingly sad situation with his mother Dening. Should he play, we can only hope Augusta grants him some moments of blessed distraction from his mother's illness.

Adam Scott had two titles to defend in February and March of this year, legacies of his charge into the Masters in 2016.

Join the appreciative galleries who follow Scott around courses all across the golfing planet, and you will hear a collective sigh every time he tees off. The golf swing as it should appear.

When he can back up this thing of beauty with a putting game, he is a contender, and lately that has been the case.

Save perhaps for a bad round last weekend, Scott is happy with his work around the greens coming into this Masters, and at 36 is the only Masters winner appearing in the mix apart from Spieth.

Phil Mickelson would be in Jack Nicklaus territory if he wins at 46. Possible, but a big ask.

A good trivia question is to ask which Australian posted the highest Masters finish in the first decade of this century. Not many will come up with Rod Pampling and Mark Hensby, who were in the tie for fifth in 2005. Considering everyone was playing for second anyway in The Age of Tiger, this was a great effort in a time when an Australian victory at Augusta seemed a remote prospect.

So 'Pamps' returns to Augusta courtesy of his win in Las Vegas earlier this year, a decade on from his last visit. This time he won't have to worry about Tiger.

 

Justin Rose at the Houston Open last week.
Justin Rose at the Houston Open last week. Eric Christian Smith

Three more worth mentioning are Paul Casey, Justin Rose and Rickie Fowler, the first two because they have now finished high more than once at Augusta, and Fowler because he's one of this year's winners and has the talent and some recent form.

But four steady rounds of Augusta? From the moment he doubled the first hole last year, Fowler was in trouble.

Rose hasn't missed a cut in 11 Masters, and managed to recover from a second-round 77 last year to again finish in the top 10. A major winner and the Olympic champion, Rose would have to figure in calculations.

Rose and Spieth played together the final round of 2015, and though he failed to rattle the young man's cage, they both shot 70.

The glorious old Augusta National clubhouse, once the antebellum mansion-homestead of an indigo plantation, has a room below its cupola known as The Crow's Nest. Crow indeed you can should you be invited to stay there, because it's from where Tiger, Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus emerged as amateurs to go on and become legends.

 

Curtis Luck, of Australia, watches his shot from the 16th fairway during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Curtis Luck, of Australia, watches his shot from the 16th fairway during the second round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Phelan M. Ebenhack

This year young Aussie Curtis Luck will be offered one of the five beds in the Crow's Nest, after winning not just the US Amateur title, but also the Asia Pacific. The 20-year-old from Perth has signed with IMG and is soon to make his professional debut.

First though, Augusta National, and an experience money simply cannot buy.

Join Tim Sheridan, Paul Gow and Stuart Appleby for Fox Sports' coverage of the Masters from 4.30am (AEST) this Friday on Fox Sports' More (Channel 507).

News Corp Australia

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